Funny how we don’t have time to improve, but we have plenty of time to perform work inefficiently and to resolve the same problems over and over.
– Dr W E Deming
This quote by Dr Deming given 50 years ago is still relevant today. In COVID-19 times when Oman is striving for more efficiency in its production of oil & gas and looking for improved productivity across all sectors to boost the economy how often do you hear the phrase “I am too busy firefighting to make improvement”? Maybe you have even used it yourself. It is a common barrier thrown up to resist change.
Every company I have worked with has at least one of these ‘firefighters’. Often, they are held in high regard by Senior Managers as the go-to person with the knowledge to resolve that recurring problem. After all, they fixed it last time. For sure, this person has a warm feeling of being critical to the business and undoubtedly believes they are doing the right thing by the business. The issue here is that the problem has come back. It was never fixed. Just contained. Only temporarily.
Allow me to tell you what a real firefighter does.
Firefighters receive a great deal of training. Not just training on their equipment but also the science of fire itself. They study fire. They understand how fires behave. The know what impact all the variables will have on how a fire burns, its speed and intensity. This is important as it allows them to put fires out effectively and safely.
Let us imagine the scene in a fire station when a call comes in of a building on fire. The crew are scrambled. They don their standard equipment, follow standard procedure and are on their way in their fire truck that they know is fit for purpose and ready to use.
On the way to the fire they will be receiving information about the fire. Wind direction, type of building, what material the building is constructed from, is there a basement, are their chemicals or gas cylinders present, is anybody thought to be inside, best access point, etc. All this information is vitally important. With this information the crew have expectations of how the fire will behave and they plan accordingly.
When they arrive at the fire, the crew follow their standard work and begin to fight the fire. As they go into the building, they fully douse the immediate area; this is their exit route. This is done before they move further into the burning building. They stop the fire from coming back.
If the fire deviates significantly from expectation the crew will back out and reassess. What has changed? What information are they missing? With their knowledge and training a new plan is rapidly formulated and executed. As a result the fire will be extinguished. Once the fire is out and the area is made safe the firefighters leave the site. You may be thinking “excellent, the fire is out, job done”.
Can you relate the scenario above to the worker in your organisation that refers to oneself as a firefighter? However, the real firefighters are not yet done.
Next on the scene is the fire investigation officer. They will seek to understand the cause of the fire and how it spread. An unwatched pan on the stove, a discarded cigarette, a faulty appliance, old or damaged electrical wiring. Were the furnishings fire retardant, were accelerants present, were fire doors left open, etc. All these are factors the investigating team will seek answers to.
The answers to these questions help the fire service provide guidelines on how society should behave to prevent future recurrence; to stop the fire from coming back [in another building]. These guidelines may take the form of informative safety campaigns, the provision of smoke detectors, the passing into law of building standards and wiring regulations. All these countermeasures are targeted at stopping fires.
Firefighters find problems – the building is on fire. Firefighters fix the problem – put the fire out. Firefighters stop the problem from coming back – they ensure the fire does not reignite and they take further action to help prevent repeat occurrences of the same scenario.
Next time somebody tells you they are too busy firefighting to do something ask them how often they have put the same fire out. If it is more than once, I would suggest they are not a firefighter. I would go one step further and suggest that possibly they are a barrier to progress and that they need to apply problem solving methodologies and recognise they have a problem.
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